The Three "P"s of Sustainability

Sustainability is an issue faced by us all and those in the graphics industry are not immune. In fact, sustainability has become one of the issues at the forefront of the industry, causing long time operators to reassess their methods while giving them and others the opportunity to explore new products. Additionally, scarcity of natural resources continues to impact the way wide-format print providers approach their businesses, from the sourcing of raw materials and supplies to manufacturing and delivery.

Dave Sunderman, Sustainable Project Lead Coordinator at Visual Marking Systems, talks about the things brands may be looking for when choosing a PSP. “Sustainable brands are looking for sustainable-focused print service providers that can reduce time and money, add to their own sustainable programs and improve their bottom line,” says Sunderman. “This is measured using the three P’s - People, Profits, and Planet.”

One of the things that might be asked is how wide-format PSPs are affected differently than smaller presses when it comes to sustainability. Nicki Macfarlane President at ProGraphix addresses the issue: “The print substrate used by small format printers is primarily paper for indoor use. However, wide format printers have a multitude of printing substrates to choose from, depending on whether the print is for indoors or outdoors, rigid or flexible, flat or curved surfaces, with or without adhesive (removable, permanent, repositionable) and long term or short term. Other decisions include the type of ink to use and if lamination is required. Finding the right sustainable option is an extremely time consuming process and the choices are constantly changing. Sustainable materials for wide-format can be more expensive than convention materials which can be harder to sell.”

Necessary Changes

Dave Sunderman discusses the changes VMS has made regarding the use of sustainable and raw materials and supplies.

“When VMS became the 37th Certified Green Printer of SGP, we began to realize the importance of documenting what we were doing, almost in a way to benchmark off of our own performance,” says Sunderman. “Open and ongoing dialogue with our suppliers helps determine if any new or alternative methods or products/ materials could be used to improve the sustainability profile of our business. Sometimes it’s not selecting a “greener” product, sometimes; the reductions come from just using less of it. For instance a chemical that emits less VOCs into the air, might be more costly, and the operator might need to use more of the chemical to do the same job as before. Working with your suppliers to determine the most efficient use or a better way to apply the product will yield the anticipated reduction result without changing any product or supplier.”

“Our focus is providing products that are biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content, virgin fiber paper source, or reduced PVC content whenever possible,” says Macfarlane. “We educate our customers by passing out samples of sustainable print materials with symbols to highlight the sustainable characteristic. Our website also includes information on sustainable materials. Our primary banner and paper materials are now recyclable, and many of our rigid substrates are recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. We also use adhesive backed products with no pvc content when possible.”

In addition to processes, PSPs must also look at the change in product availability and cost.

“Sustainability at the core is doing more, with less,” says Sunderman. “VMS is always looking for ways to take our sustainability commitment further; however, cost does play a very important role in a print buyer’s procurement decisions. We believe in order to do this we must look at those products not only in ways that encompass the economic dimensions but also the ecological and environmental and social dimensions as well.”

Macfarlane states: “In most cases, pricing has remained the same as before. We work hard to find sustainable products that are comparable in price to conventional alternatives. In cases where the sustainable product is more expensive, we have found that customers typically don’t mind paying a slightly higher price when sustainability is a key goal.”

“It really depends on the rate at which cost and opportunity meet,” Sunderman adds. “Do green products cost more on average in the PSP Wide Format industry? With concrete evidence I would say, yes. Let me begin to explain why I think this is. Each industry is affected in its own unique way; large commercial print, versus, screen printing, and digital wide-format are all meeting different levels of opportunity and market pressures at unexpected times. Commercial print and screen printing uses a lot of set up sheets that either get thrown out or recycled, so here the opportunity is searching for ways to reduce your landfill waste and recycle, because in these forms of printing, you MUST make a set up sheet to ensure print quality. However for the digital wide-format industry the opportunity I see is the ability to print on a larger variety of materials. Specifically recycled content ones, and have no set up sheets in this process, thus, reducing waste by adopting this technology.”

Sunderman continues: “For many businesses, going green is a huge opportunity, however, customers are generally not willing to pay more, so as a company we must look at other ways to improve our environmental efficiency, to reduce our costs, like lighting retrofits to reduce our electricity usage, monitoring our landfill waste and tracking the refunds we receive from the materials we recycle.”

Other changes that may be considered are shipping and delivery processes used by PSPs. How can a PSP change shipping or delivery processes in order to increase green awareness?

Sunderman says, “Sometimes when we ship a product to a customer, we must think about the way in which it is packaged, and if we are using our resources most efficiently. This can be explained in the following example. When we ship one of our products in a box, that is inside of a larger box, to a customer, do we need the extra box? What type of message are we conveying to our customers if we don’t actually need the extra box? In order to streamline shipping, make our packages lean as possible. Don’t waste time with all of those boxes, just ship what is actually needed and leave out the rest.”

Macfarlane states: “We use significantly less packaging on our products that we used in prior years. When extra packaging is required, we use biodegradable bubble wrap and recyclable kraft paper. We reuse most boxes and packing material that comes with our deliveries. We order our supplies from the closest location possible and combine shipments.”

Green Trends

As the issue of sustainability continues to grow the marketplace will be faced with trend setting products and processes. Macfarlane addresses current and future trends. “One significant current trend that improves sustainability is the increase in the use of flatbed printers. Printing directly to rigid substrates substantially reduces the amount of waste produced, and the UV-curable inks have virtually no VOC’s. The durability of the ink reduces the need for lamination, which creates more waste and would be an obstacle in recycling. Sustainability is going to be more important than ever to our customers in the coming years, and certification from organizations such as the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) will become more prevalent as PSPs look for ways to communicate their commitment to sustainability.”

“I see numerous trends that print suppliers are using to gain a competitive edge these are happening now, the old adage: “if you fail to plan, plan to fail” still holds true, sustainability isn’t about hugging trees, its about technology,” says Sunderman. “The more technology and information a company has, the better it will be equipped to change to market needs of its customers. Technology and Information systems help create a culture around the access of information and provides people with sound resources to manage their operations better. The second trend is more big businesses are adopting sustainability into their corporate goals. With larger players in the marketplace we all will begin to see a change in how we will do business, it will no longer be a question of “do we?” it will be a question of “how?.” Finally, another current trend is PSP’s creating creative marketing strategies. These green marketing campaigns are the social aspects of a business, and how well it can nurture their relationships with potential customers who share the same values. Second to this marketing component is the employees are increasingly interested in gaining feedback from doing all of the work. These sustainable marketing campaigns give the employees inside them a chance to see their performance and how well they are saving natural resources at work.”